Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Onikoroshi

One of the many great experiences we had last weekend on the Monterey peninsula was our last stop on the way out of town. My wife's family was visiting from the Midwest, and one of the things they always crave when they visit here is sushi. So we took them to our favorite sushi bar down there, Sakura.

We've been to Sakura quite a few times, and it has several things going for it:
  • It's open quite late.
  • It caters to locals more than tourists.
  • Kazu, the owner and chef, is a kind, friendly host.
  • He grills his unagi on the spot, and it's fabulous.
  • His other nigiri sushi is very fresh and tasty, too.
And really, what more could you ask from a sushi bar?

As a group of seven, ranging from a five-year-old to two teens to four adults, we could have been a nightmare in some restaurants, but after we ordered and consumed 15 pieces of unagi, 15 pieces of wonderful hamachi, a dozen of maguro, one of Kazu's special avocado rolls covered with unagi, and a couple of other things (and several bottle of the house sake), we were still welcome guests. In fact, Kazu offered t-shirts (he designs them himself, and they're beautiful) to the youngsters. And of course, we ordered more hot sake. And some more unagi and hamachi for "dessert."

As we were finishing our desserts, Kazu came and sat with us, bringing a large bottle of sake with him, insisting that we must try his sake. It was delicious.
It's called "Onikoroshi," which translates to something like "killing the demon" or "demon slaying." We chatted about sake and sushi and demons and all sorts of things as we tasted his sake and finished ours and our dinner.

That's it. There's no punch line or moral or anything. But we sure had a terrific time, and of course, we will be back.

And if you'd like a more objective view, here's a review from the local weekly.

[Updated 17 July to "correct" spelling and add graphic.]

So Much to Write; So Little Time!

Yikes! A whole week since my last posting. In part, it's due to being swamped with work. In part, it's due to a long family weekend. I'll try to get caught up.

But I just had to share this very moving posting by investigative reporter Murray Waas. It's long, but well worth the read. It covers a lot of ground about how things come back to bite us, how some things that bite us never leave us, and how we discover what's really important. It covers war, reporting, lawsuits, and cancer. Read it.

Toward the end, he talks about how a number of his experiences have coalesced into his view of his job, investigative journalism. Although he doesn't use the term "lapdogs," he does reference the fact that many in his profession don't seem to realize how important their work is to the rest of us: Journalism isn't for journalists, it's for us:
One of the major problems with journalism today is that too many reporters care more about their constituencies, rather than their readers or their mission. We write for our peers and prize committees. We serve at the pleasure of corporate boards and stockholders. We are too often afraid to stray too far from the conventional wisdom.
[Thanks to Barbara O'Brien of The Mahablog for linking to this excellent piece.]

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

And Since It's Still Torture Awareness Month...

*sigh*

It's hard to add to this headline: "Torture of Mentally Ill Prisoner Led Administration To Pursue False Leads"

But it's pretty clear what torture begets, from today's Washington Post:
Two U.S. soldiers missing since an attack on a checkpoint last week have been found dead near a power plant in Yusifiyah, south of Baghdad, according to U.S. officials, and Iraqi officials say the soldiers had been tortured.
Torture is wrong. Torture is always wrong. Torture leads to more torture.

Don't go there.

Oh, No!

Right before I went to bed last night, I saw a reference to this article in USA Today:
The Senate is one vote away from passing a constitutional amendment that would ban desecration of the U.S. flag, the closest that amendment supporters have been to passage.
And as I drifted off to sleep, I was thinking that although this pernicious amendment seems to have some momentum behind it, I could at least take comfort in knowing that none of my elected representatives would actually support such an abomination.

And then this morning, I find this: (tip of the hat to the always-vigilant Glenn Greenwald and his anonymous co-conspirator)
Flag needs protection
By Dianne Feinstein
On the morning of February 24, 1945 ‚— when I was a 12-year-old girl — I picked up a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle. On its cover, there was a full-page picture of the now iconic Joe Rosenthal photograph of American marines raising the United States flag at Iwo Jima.
She goes on to explain how this picture "cemented" her view of the flag. OK, sure. Powerful imagery there. But she then resorts to two deeply flawed rationalizations of her support for a constitutional amendment.

First, she cites the late Justice Byron White's 1974 concurring opinion in Smith v. Goguen that like the Lincoln Memorial, "[t]he flag is itself a monument, subject to similar protection." That bit of sophistry is unbecoming a Supreme Court Justice (or even a Senator). Clearly unlike the Lincoln Memorial, each individual flag is not a monument. So while White and Feinstein are correct that the physical monument to Abraham Lincoln is deserving of protection against defacement and desecration, I doubt that either would consider it appropriate to amend the constitution to protect every image of the Lincoln Memorial.

There is an entire souvenir industry that involves pressing pennies into images of some tourist attraction, and every one of those squashed pennies thereby loses its image of the Lincoln Memorial. Leaving aside that the intent of squashing pennies is generally not to protest the U.S. government, it is absurd to think that every likeness of an actual monument deserves the same protection as the actual monument.

That said, "the flag" is not a single, fixed item. It is not a monument. White himself called it
"...an important symbol of nationhood and unity, created by the Nation and endowed with certain attributes. Conceived in this light, I have no doubt about the validity of laws designating and describing the flag and regulating its use, display, and disposition."
One could quibble with the use of the term "symbol" (it's really more of an emblem), but it is clear that the flag is not a monument.

I'll return in a moment to the matter of "disposition."

Senator Feinstein's second defense comes from the notion that protecting the flag from desecration can be achieved without infringing the First Amendment protection of free speech and expression:
There is no idea or thought expressed by the burning of the American flag that cannot be expressed equally well in another manner. This Amendment would leave both the flag and free speech safe.
Apparently the Senator feels it is acceptable for the Constitution to delineate which methods of expression are acceptable, as long as some other method is available. But that argument is specious. Following that logic, one could proscribe songs, because the same thoughts or ideas could be expressed in words alone, or restrict poetry because prose would be available. Art could be restricted as to color, and so on.

It is precisely that line that the first amendment draws: it is not the role of the government to decide what we may think or how we may express those ideas. Indeed, the notion that somehow the government can decide that we don't need that particular means of expression calls to mind the legendary Marie Antoinette who seemingly could not understand peasants rioting over a lack of bread, when cake was surely available. When the law starts to infringe on the content or manner of expression, the freedom of expression is under attack.

Now then, to the question of this national emblem and its disposition. Justice White suggested that because the flag was created by "the Nation," he had no problem with laws describing the flag and its use and disposition. But that is precisely where the problem lies. If "the Nation" can declare objects sacred ("desecration" means violation of sacredness; "flag desecration" therefore implies that the flag is sacred!), that Nation can also compel the veneration of those objects, and that again is exactly what the first amendment is meant to prohibit.

If we love, cherish, and revere the flag as a national emblem or symbol, it is precisely because of the efforts and sacrifices of those who raised the flag at Iwo Jima or planted it on the moon. You cannot legislate sacredness, and it is fool's errand to try. If people lack respect for the flag or for the nation it represents, a better solution is for the leaders of the nation to act respectably, instead of pandering and trying to create respect by fiat.

As I did a little more research today, I found that Senator Feinstein has supported efforts to "protect the flag" in the past, so I doubt that I will succeed in persuading her otherwise this time. But it is my duty to try. I have too much respect for this nation and its institutions to do otherwise.

We Have a Winner!

It took almost two weeks to count all the votes, but Oakland has a new mayor-elect. And the whole thing has been handled with dignity and class on all sides, and little public acrimony.

That's the way elections are supposed to work. The new mayor doesn't take office until next January. There is plenty of time to prepare, line up staff, and all that. The two extra weeks of careful vote-counting ensured that everyone believes the results, and can live with them.

And that's what democracy is all about.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

A Tough Time to be a Whale

Things are about to change, and not for the better, on the whaling front. At least, from the perspective of the whales.

The International Whaling Commission is about to meet, and it looks as though the proponents of whaling will perhaps attain a majority for the first time in quite a while (from the AP story):
Pro-whaling nations are expected to take control of the International Whaling Commission this week, giving them a majority of seats on the panel for the first time since it banned commercial hunting 20 years ago.
As it turns out, there are only three countries that do any appreciable whaling anymore. Norway flaunts the international ban on commercial whaling. Japan and Iceland harvest whales under the allowance for "scientific research." It is unclear to me just what scientific value is gained by killing whales. Or at least by killing more than a few. What is clear is that between 2,000 and 3,000 whales were killed last year, that we know of. And what becomes of the whale carcasses after this "research"? They are sold. For food.

You see, some people like to eat whale meat. Or at least, some people are trying to promote the eating of whale meat. Oddly enough, there is a glut of whale meat, at least in Japan. Yet Japan is the country pressing the hardest (and recruiting allies) to allow more whaling.

So Japan has reintroduced whale meat, in the form of whale burgers and other dishes, into the school diet, trying to cultivate a taste for whale meat in the young. Meanwhile, the price of whale has plummeted as surplus meat goes unwanted.

The circularity of the argument is rather bizarre: They claim to need to kill more whales to meet demand, yet the meat from existing "research" exceeds current demand.

I have a particular interest in whales. In addition to a lifelong fondness for marine mammals of all sorts, I had the opportunity last summer to swim with humpback whales in the Kingdom of Tonga. We went to Tonga as part of an expedition with the Imaging Foundation, with the goal of documenting the state of Tonga's humpback whales for a website we created.

Swimming with whales is amazing, to say the least. They are huge, yet gentle, and display grace and curiosity that is truly inspiring. And Tonga has found a way to take advantage of that. The king of Tonga banned all hunting of whales in Tongan waters in 1978. He reasoned that live whales would bring people to Tonga and boost the economy. So far, he seems to be correct, and the whale population is starting to recover.

Unfortunately, although the whales are protected while in Tonga, they are migratory, and can easily be killed while they travel to and from their summer feeding grounds in the Antarctic.

Killing whales might have made sense at one time in history, but currently, there is no significant market for whale products, and the number killed for "research" far exceeds the amount that can reasonably be justified on that basis.

Looks like it might be time to dust off the "Save the Whales" bumper stickers and t-shirts.

I Suppose It Had to Happen Sometime

*sigh*

I had almost put the finishing touches on a rather lengthy posting about whales, and Firefox crashed. All gone. I shall try to reconstruct it.

*sigh*

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The High Frontier

Oh, goodness.

I read the other day that Stephen Hawking says it's important for humans to create space colonies. From the AP's coverage:
"It is important for the human race to spread out into space for the survival of the species," Hawking said. "Life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers we have not yet thought of."
Others take a slightly more cynical view of the importance of this matter to Hawking.

And then I found a clever and amusing discussion of the matter at faultline.org.

All this takes me back to my high school days, when we read the writings of Gerard O'Neill, like Hawking, a physicist, but an experimental one. Hawking's brilliant work has been mostly of a theoretical nature, and he has a great genius for communicating his lofty thoughts to the masses. But O'Neill really dug down into the guts of what it would take to build space colonies. His best-known book, The High Frontier, laid out just what it would take in terms of research, resources, and human commitment to build colonies in space. (One key, by the way, was not to rely on governments to do the job.)

And like Hawking, O'Neill saw it as important to ensure the survival of the human species. I'll leave aside for the moment the question of whether that's actually important; reasonable people can differ on that. But really, as optimistic as I usually am, I find it difficult to believe that anything like the necessary commitment exists. Nor is it clear to me that in the hundred years that Hawking claims we might have to pull off this stunt, we could actually produce a separate, sustainable human population somewhere off the earth.

I would far rather we look for ways to reduce or eliminate the human-caused threats to humanity, and perhaps to focus on ways to survive other threats here at home.

As I mentioned in one of my earliest posts here, Robert A. Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was a very influential book in my formative years. Not only did it introduce me to my first self-aware computer, but it depicted some of the conflicts that might likely arise between an off-planet human population and those still on earth. One can only imagine that those conflicts would be all the worse in light of some of the threats Hawking cites.

Space colonization is not a panacea for the ills that face humanity and Earth. It might be a useful (and certainly interesting!) expansion of our world. But ultimately, both for humans as individuals and humanity as a species, the solutions to our problems lie within ourselves and the world we already have.

It may be "important," as Hawking notes, for us to spread into space. But I would argue that it's more important to face up to and deal with our issues right here.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Final Thoughts on the Election

Well, the election is almost over here. They're still manually counting ballots today, but just a few. Turns out, those few make a difference, but only in the sense that the candidates and their staffs are a bit uncertain. It's not like we would actually have a new mayor today if they resolved things--he won't take office until next year, regardless.

This was the thing that bothered me about the 2000 presidential election. They had the time to do it right, yet the Supreme Court just stepped in and said to stop counting and declared a winner.

The basic rule of elections is, you count all the votes. Duh.

I know; old news.

And an update on our election technology, from the same S.F. Chronicle article:
On Thursday, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted to purchase new voting equipment in time for the Nov. 7 election to avoid a repeat of Tuesday night's marathon 15-hour manual vote count.

Sequoia Voting Systems Inc. of Oakland will provide 1,000 optical scanners and 1,000 touch-screen voting computers for each of the county's 830 polling places at a cost of $13.5 million.
So, a couple of things here:

One, what's so bad about taking 15 hours to count votes? What's the rush? Take your time and do it right. I know it's exciting to see who wins, but what are we sacrificing to get the instant gratification? Count all the votes. Count them right. Count them again, if you have to.

Two, this is a lot of money to spend on machines we don't use very often. Yes, they are important, but really, $13.5M could do a lot for the county. And this is basically for a glorified version of the old Scantrons we used to use in high school. Hmmmm.

The good news out of all this is that we apparently learned a bit by getting burned on the last batch of machines. They're written conditions into the contract that they have to have hackers test the machines, and of course, there has to be a verifiable paper trail. So this is at least better than the last go-'round, but it still strikes me that we're rushing to do something that doesn't really need to be done.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Election: Back to the Future

One other note about today's election: My county will be the one holding up the statewide results, because we've had to scrap our electronic voting machines that don't meet the (really minimal) state and federal standards. And apparently we couldn't even scrounge enough manual machines:
The outcome of the Democratic governor's race and other contests could be up in the air until poll workers in Alameda County, where nearly 6 percent of the state's Democratic voters live, count ballots by hand.

Alameda County mothballed its new electronic voting machines because they failed to meet federal and state standards. But it was unable to obtain enough optical scanning machines to count the ballots even after borrowing 60 machines from San Diego County.
Great. Now, I'm a tech guy, but I also believe that we shouldn't just blindly hand over the keys to the democracy to untested, unverifiable technology. When we used the electronic system in Alameda County, there was no physical evidence at all that I had voted (notwithstanding the little "I Voted" sticker they give you) other than the fact that I'd signed the register. And you have to sign before you vote, so even that isn't proof. And no way to tell what I had voted for, either. Just had to take their word for it.

That just doesn't cut it. In a democracy, nothing matters more than voting. All the other rights, like free speech and press, basically exist so that we can have free and fair elections. Just having to trust the vote counters (or more to the point, the vendors who set up the vote-counting machines) is not democracy.

I'd be fine with manual ballot counts. Heck, I'd even volunteer to help out. I think we can do better than that, but the current set of electronic machines isn't better. It's nice to be modern. It's nice to be fast. But it's far, far more important to be accurate and to have people actually believe the results of the count.

So today we've taken a step backward, technologically. But as far as I'm concerned, it's a huge step forward democratically. And as much as I like technology, I care a whole lot more about democracy.

Primary Election Musical Chairs

Just back from doing my civic duty today. Not a whole lot of interesting races in my neck of the woods. Lots of incumbents running unopposed. But I did get to vote to have someone other than a bad actor be my governor. That's a worthwhile use of my time.

And then there's the shuffling of the deck chairs among those who are term-limited out of their current jobs, so the Attorney General runs for Treasurer, the Treasurer and the Controller are both running for Governor. The Lieutenant Governor is running for Insurance Commissioner, while the Insurance Commissioner is trying to be Lieutenant Governor again. And a former governor, my outgoing mayor, wants to be Attorney General.

When the music stops, we'll see who has a seat.

At least we don't have any truly onerous propositions on the ballot this time. Some local bond measures for schools and community colleges, and a statewide one for public libraries. And the one contentious one is about universal preschool. And at least with that one, there is widespread agreement that preschool is a good thing, so people can focus on whether this is a good way to achieve the goal.

But really, with so few truly contested races, why is it that I can't stand answering my phone for the last month or so, anticipating Yet Another Canned Phone Call.

Considering how much I actually like politics and elections, it's remarkable how much I look forward to elections being over, so the ads will go away. *sigh*

Good grief. Got another recorded call while I was typing this. 8.5 hours until the polls close....

Monday, June 05, 2006

Torture

A number of groups, including Amnesty International USA and Human Rights Watch, have declared June to be Torture Awareness Month.

Most of us would rather not be aware of torture. Torture is bad. Torture is always bad. And it is beyond mortally embarrassing that my national government has had to engage in serious discussion of that fact over the last couple of years.

So I'm proud to make my first post of June register my endorsement of Torture Awareness Month. If I can make even one person more aware of the disgraceful things being done in our names, perhaps we can start to tip the balance.

As if it needed to be said: Be nice to each other.

Update: I forgot to mention that you can show your support by joining Blog Against Torture, too!